Bleeding For Their Art: Jennifer and Sylvia Soska Unexpurgated

Soska twins

Thanks to their singular, striking second feature American Mary, ‘Twisted Twins’ Jennifer and Sylvia Soska have become the reigning queens of the horror scene. I interviewed them a while back for a print article, but as often happens, ended up having to perform radical surgery on their words in order to comply with a restrictive wordcount. So in the interests of full disclosure, here is the complete interview, cleaned up a tiny bit here and there for clarity, but otherwise totally uncut. It is too long – which is to say that the Soskas are great interviewees – but it is a pity not to have a public record of their views on, e.g., Robert Rodriguez, Women in Horror Month and their cinematic influences, so here goes…

Soska twins 2

Anton Bitel: Your debut Dead Hooker In A Trunk features a cameo from Carlos Gallardo [star of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi] as a taxi-driving God, a literal deus ex machina dispensing advice to one of your lost characters. Was this your way of acknowledging the influence that Rodriguez’s brand of no-budget guerrilla filmmaking has had on your own work?

Sylvia Soska: If it wasn’t for Robert Rodriguez and Carlos Gallardo’s work, I don’t think Jennifer and I would have taken that initial leap into making our own film. In El Mariachi, Robert sold his body to science for $7000 which they used to pay for the film, and he wrote a book, a first-hand account about making the film called Rebel Without A Crew, and at the very end of the book he says, “Don’t just sit around talking about making a film, go out and do it.” That was such a huge inspiration to us, so when we decided to make the film, we followed in everything from that book and all the experiences that Robert and Carlos had. The initial reaction in Vancouver when we were making that first film was that we were completely insane and that it was incredibly ambitious for us to do it. People started talking about it until it reached Carlos Gallardo down in Los Angeles, and he heard the crazy thing we were doing, so he got in contact with us, and then he started giving us advice, so we not only had advice from the book, but we had Carlos first-hand giving the advice about what happened with him and Robert when they were making the movie and what we could do to make it work, and we had a cameo role written in for God, for which we were hoping to grab somebody like Carlos – not knowing even that we would get in contact with Carlos during the film – and I asked him when we got to the point of shooting that, “Hey Carlos, I wrote this part, I know you’re really busy, I don’t know if it would be possible for you to be involved, but I would love for you to be in the film,” and Carlos responded right away, saying, “I will be in the movie, but on one condition: you cannot pay me anything, I will do it for free.”

Jennifer: In an industry where people so heavily guard the kinds of things they learn to do, it’s amazing that Robert Rodriguez, with his Ten-Minute Film School and his book Rebel Without A Crew, has always been so giving of his secrets. In Dead Hooker In A Trunk, where we have this scene where my eye gets knocked out, we took that straight out of Once Upon A Time In Mexico‘s Ten-Minute Film School, the scene where Johnny Depp digs into Cheech Marin’s eye, and because of the way he showed you how to set up a match shot, that’s how we were able to set up when my eye got knocked out. It’s just incredible to have somebody who will give up their secrets, and then challenge filmmakers: ok, this is how I did it, go do it better. People like Robert Rodriguez and Dick Smith are so rare in this business, where they don’t want to keep their secrets just to themselves. They really care about film, and they want people to learn from what they were doing, and they want to share that info and encourage people to do better than what they did.

AB: I understand Dead Hooker In A Trunk started life as a fanmade fake trailer in the wake of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. How did it turn into a feature?

Sylvia: Absolutely. We were going to film school at the time, and I use the term film school very loosely. It was one of these places that pop up because they know how desperate people are to work in the industry and they make a bunch of promises, they charge you about $20,000, and then you’re sitting in a class saying, “Oh my gosh, we’re just doing cold reads and reading scripts, I’m learning absolutely nothing.” Thank god Grindhouse was in the theatre at the time because every day after school Jen & I would go and watch the movie and that was our real film schoiol. And seeing the faux trailers, especially seeing Hobo With A Shotgun by Jason Eisener, a fellow Canadian, we thought, “This is amazing, we might not be able to pull off a feature right now, but what if we did a faux trailer for something.” The faux trailer we made for Dead Hooker In A Trunk was so popular when we made it, people would ask, “When is the feature coming out?” We took that opportunity and that interest, thinking, “Hey, maybe people would be interested in a feature version of this.” So we maxed out our credit cards, called in every favour, and made it happen. We made the trailer at graduation, because they pulled the funding for our final project, and we decided, “I’m not going to have no final project, I’m going to do something on my own.” so Jennifer and I wrote, directed, produced, acted in, and did all the stuntwork for a faux trailer called Dead Hooker In a Trunk.

Jennifer: The way we usually write is to break it down in a timeline with a three-act structure, but with the trailer, the challenge was we had these scenes that we really wanted to incorporate into the [finished feature] film. The way Robert wrote El Mariachi was very similar, he had some standout signature scenes laid down on recipe cards, and he had blank ones as well, and he put them out on the timeline where roughly he thought that they would work in the chronological order, and then he placed the blank ones in between. That’s actually how we wrote Dead Hooker In A Trunk. We wanted to make sure that all of the scenes we put into our fake trailer actually made it into the film. The scene with the motel manager, the scene where there’s the swearing monologue, all those ones were initially in the trailer. And the scene with the cowboy as well, we wanted to make sure all those got in, and if you’ve seen Dead Hooker In A Trunk, it’s a little bit of a what-the-fuck movie, where basically anything can happen, and that kind of made it easier to write it from a trailer into a feature, because you really do, while watching it, have to suspend your disbelief. I always think it’s funny when people get upset about the arm scene, where Jennifer loses her arm and later she’s using it again. People say, that’s not possible. I always think that there’s really not much that’s realistic in the film.

American Mary

AB: American Mary represents a huge advance on your first feature in terms of production values and filmmaking quality. How were you able to secure a bigger budget for a film whose plotting, stitched together from rape-revenge, body horror and tragic romance, practically defines niche?

Sylvia: Actually everybody in the city and every other city passed on the movie. We were trying to sell it for about a year and a half, to the point where we actually thought, “Nobody believes we can pull off a movie like this, nobody understands the niche.” We are so tired of seeing the same movie in the horror genre being made over and over again, so we wanted to make something different, and I think, because of the content in American Mary, we overshot that ambition by a lot. It was actually my parents who mortgaged their house to be the first investors into it. It’s not like they were, “Oh, we need to make the movie on body modification,” but they knew the script, and Jennifer and I would talk about it constantly, and they said, “If somebody needs to take the first jump to show that somebody believes in this movie, it’s going to be us.” After that, we had two other investors, we had 430 Productions and Riaz Tyab come on board, and the people that we did get coming in to finance the film were people that really understood what we were trying to do. They didn’t see a Hostel or a Saw film, what they did see was this very odd commentary on a woman’s role in a male-dominated workplace, an emphasis on what appearances are, and understanding what people actually are like despite what their outward look is.

Jennifer: Absolutely, it was such a unique project that nobody wanted to touch it. With the concept of body modification, our opening pitch was always: “You know, because it’s so heavily featured in the film, are you familiar with body modification?” The kneejerk reaction was always people cringing and saying, “Oh that’s disgusting, that’s awful.” We were like, “No, it’s not disgusting and it’s not awful, and that’s in itself the reason why we really want to make this film, because there aren’t a lot of groups that are as misunderstood as the people in the body mod community.” The kneejerk reaction is to think these people are freaks, and I don’t really see a difference between the body mod community, and people that indulge in cosmetic surgery, except with cosmetic surgery, often people are trying to fit into the ideal, or the American ideal, of what is beautiful, not necessarily doing it for themselves, but doing it for other people, whereas in the body mod community, you can’t really argue that somebody is filing their teeth or forking their tongue to please anybody but themselves. It was very difficult, it got to the point where we were thinking it was going to be our Inglourious Basterds – like after we’d made a few films, in ten years maybe we’d be able to make American Mary when people had enough faith in us, and after they’d seen Dead Hooker In A Trunk, some people locked us into a category of grindhouse shock filmmakers that can only do something like that. Actually our fanbase was a huge part in us being able to go forward with the film, because they’d been so supportive of us, and some of them said, “With $2500 they’re able to make this DIY, no-holds-barred film, and there’s something there that they have that they can expand on if they had a budget.” Some people said there’s no fucking way in hell, but there was our fanbase that was so loyal and believed in us, and so many reviewers as well, that said, “Give these girls a little more money and you’re really going to be able to see something.”

AB: American Mary concerns an ambitious young woman whose thwarted attempts to achieve success in the mainstream lead her to go independent – becoming solvent, empowered and self-determined, all from way off the grid. This is an allegory of your own experience as female, non-US indie horror filmmakers, right?

Sylvia: It is absolutely an analogy for our own experiences. When we wrote the script, we were still in the process of distributing Dead Hooker In A Trunk. We had spent all of our money. The film itself cost only $2500. The cost of living and having bills without working, and working on the film, was extremely costly, and we couldn’t afford food, we had bill collectors calling us all the time, we’d be going down to LA and having meetings with different industry types – these very cleancut people who you’d think would be very normal and professional – and I found a lot of the time that Jennifer and I were being treated as party favours rather than working women in the industry that had product that they were trying to put out. And then we found a home in the horror community, and it wasn’t the plan that they tell you in school: go out, do this, and if you work really hard and have a good product, this will happen for you. Being identical twins, we always found ourselves a little outcast, and people would always look at the way we look and have a lot of questions. It wouldn’t even necessarily be trying to get to know us, it would be that first kneejerk reaction of how to judge us based on appearance. Because we had given ourselves only two weeks to write the script initially, I don’t think we even realised we put everything of ourselves into it. It was very therapeutic. If I hadn’t written that script at that time with Jen, I don’t know what I would have done, because we had ailing family members, we had bill collectors, we had such an ambition of what we were going to be and not knowing what we were going to end up actually being, and it felt like there were a lot of sacrifices we had to make to get there while still trying to be true as the artists that we were.

AB: Have you yourselves encountered a glass ceiling in the film industry when you were in America?

Jennifer: They absolutely look at Canadian filmmakers and Canadian talent as not bankable and not marketable. When we were trying to sell Dead Hooker In A Trunk, the first question that any studio asked was who’s in it? And then they said, “That’s not good enough – nobody knows who you are so nobody cares about that – you’re Canadian and you don’t have an LA name.” Even when we had written Katharine Isabelle to play [protagonist] Mary Mason, people said, “You can’t do that, it has to be an LA name, if you want to take the next step up, you can’t do it with Canadian talent” – which is extremely frustrating. With Canada, there’s a lot of revisionist history where people say that David Cronenberg was very much supported while he was here. Well, they often tried to shut him down and they didn’t like his film while he was here. He had to put up quite a bit of resistance to get them made. And then when he went and took the jump to America, everyone in Canada said, “Oh well, he’s a Canadian treasure, we really supported him,” – which is ironic because he put up with so much opposition while he was working here, and it wasn’t until he went to America that he really had large success. It’s the same with Canadian talent. Katharine Isabelle is a phenomenal talent, and she’s a horror icon, but because she’s also a very pretty girl, and she’s Canadian, she’s hit that Canadian glass ceiling, where you don’t see her being cast in LA films or Hollywood big studio films, because they look at her and they say, “Well, she’s not a name,” regardless of what her talent is. I think that that’s changing a lot after her portrayal in American Mary.

AB: What is your involvement in Women in Horror Month and the Viscera Organization?

Sylvia: Women in Horror Month was the brainchild of Hannah Neurotica [aka Forman], the writer of the feminist horror magazine Ax Wound, and this originated in Feb 2010. She wanted to put the focus on female talent in the horror industry, because there is such a misconception about women enjoying films that are horror, and saying that women don’t like this. Well, 60% of the audience for horror films are women, and the first director of fiction cinema was Alice Guy-Blaché, and because she was a woman, a lot of her work got attributed to males, and it was just very strange how many women have been working in this industry and have been working for a long time as trailblazers, but they don’t get any recognition. So in 2010, at about the time that we were still distributing and trying to get a festival screening for Dead Hooker In A Trunk, and Hannah was introduced to us by Eli Roth, and he said, “You know what, girls, you’re gonna really like this girl, how about this is your first interview…” He should be a matchmaker, because Hannah is now one of our closest friends, and she did the interview with us, and said, “What’s going on with the film? I hear you haven’t got any festivals,” – because people would be rejecting the film based on the title alone, saying, “We don’t screen films like that.” It would be completely insane to write a film with the title Dead Hooker In A Trunk where it is not making some sort of artistic meaning and it just promotes violence against women. It’s actually a dark satire, we’ve had a lot of problems with the Pickton killer, people not really showing any respect to streetwalkers. They would just ignore it. Hannah said, “No, that has to change,” so she started talking about the film, and with her involvement we got our first two festival screenings. It changed our life a lot, because now we had an audience and people were watching the film and people knew who we were, and I thought, “This is a great thing that Hannah’s doing, she’s helping so many artists get recognition, artists from hundreds of years ago and artists working today,” and I thought, “What a great sense of community!” – especially as there’s a such a taught way of women dealing with other women, it’s very catty, there’s a lot of infighting, instead of being supportive of one another. We’re like, “oh well, look at that bitch, she’s getting ahead, let’s cut her down at the knees, oh, and as soon as you leave the room I’m going to say horrible things.” I thought, “What if we change that mentality, what if we support each other, because we’re so much stronger than that.” Since then, Jennifer and I write articles about women in horror all February long, we look for international starlets in different genres, like comicbook writers, prosthetic artists, directors, writers, actresses, producers – just getting the word out there about people who’ve made a big difference to the genre. It’s because of people like Robert Rodriguez saying, “Go out and do this, and I support independent filmmakers and unique artists,” that we felt we can do that, we can be a part of that, we can tell people, “Hey, I see what you’re doing, that’s great!” – and because there is such a spotlight on what Jennifer and I do, we have this ability to introduce people to other artists, which is really just artists helping other artists, which is how the whole genre should work.

Jennifer: Viscera was one of the first film festivals that we were invited down to, they invited Dead Hooker In A Trunk down, and they were so supportive of women, and they’ve joined with Hannah Forman to make Women in Horror Month a non-profit organisation, which allows the reach of Women in Horror Month, which is February for anybody who doesn’t know, to get a little bit further. As Sylv touched on, which is really vital, if you watch Celebrity Apprentice, you watch them get broken down into the male group and the female group, and you just watch the women argue, and it’s absolutely insane and it’s so highschool, and it’s amazing that Women in Horror Month is in part just getting women to work together and to support one another. I mean, if we stopped in-fighting it would be so much easier for us to get any work done. And of course the other thing that often some feminist groups get wrong is it’s not reverse sexism – where you’re like, “Girls only, let’s not involve men at all and men are the bad guys and it’s a boys’ club and they don’t want us here.” Well in our experience, every male director that we’ve met is not only encouraging but they’re incredibly proud of having females in this industry with them, and they’re excited about us, so it’s important to realise that there are a lot of men who are feminists as well – like Joss Whedon is one of my heroes, I don’t think I’d be the woman I am today if Buffy didn’t exist. Also, with Women in Horror Month, something that Sylvia and I do every year – and it’s a worldwide phenomenon – is host the Women in Horror Month Massive Blood Drive, where all we do is encourage people worldwide to donate blood in the name of women in horror. Because women, we’re not really a charity case, it’s good to have a dialogue, but it’s not like we need money for ourselves, we can fund our own films, we can do just anything that men can do as well, but I think it’s really beautiful that we can give something back, and you can’t really think horror without thinking blood. Blood donation is such an important cause, because a lot of people don’t realise we aren’t getting enough people donating blood. Every five seconds someone in America alone needs blood, and our main donors used to be the veterans from WWII who saw it as a patriotic duty to donate blood, but now we live in the who-can-give-a-shit generation, where everybody just assumes, oh, somebody else will do it. Well no, somebody else won’t do it, and most of us will need blood in our lifetime. It is absolutely our duty to be able to donate and to help others.

American Mary 2

AB: There is a decidedly Lynchian vibe to the Bourbon A-Go-Go club scenes in American Mary. Which other filmmakers have influenced your film?

Sylvia: Takashi Miike very heavily influenced our film with his amazing protagonist – or antihero, I guess – in Audition.

Jennifer: Only we would see it as a protagonist.

Sylvia: Eihi Shiina plays Asami, and Jen and I grew up watching horror movies, we saw Freddie, we saw Pinhead, we saw Mike Myers, we saw Jason, and I know women have a huge capacity for evil, but Elizabeth Báthory – they say she couldn’t have done all those things because she was a woman, and like, no, you don’t understand, women can be completely cruel and unforgiving and insane. Anybody who’s made a woman mad and seen what she came back with knows that women have a huge capacity for evil, so we thought, “What if we do that with out character, and make her, I mean, titillating – yes – also terrifying – very much so.” And there’s Cronenberg there, a big shout out to Dead Ringers in the twin scene where we actually put Mary in the red surgical scrubs. Dario Argento had a huge influence on our pacing and colour scheming. I remember we were watching Suspiria when we had one of the scenes where Mary’s practising her surgery on Grant [played by David Lovgren] and I thought this is very interesting because it’s all about the seduction – as Hitchcock used to say: the payoff doesn’t terrify people but leading up to it, it really seduces people. We just had a screening at the Whistler film festival, and during the scene where Mary is first interacting with Grant we had a whole lot of walkouts, and I thought, isn’t this interesting, because I don’t think this is one of the more graphic scenes, but people are hearing her speak, and hearing her very monotone, very menacing approach to describing what she’s going to be doing, and people couldn’t handle it, they couldn’t accept what was about to happen. That’s just your imagination telling you what’s going to happen next, and your imagination is much more wicked than anything I would be able to pull off here.

Jennifer: As much as Dead Hooker In A Trunk was a love letter to grindhouse filmmaking, this is very much a love letter to Asian and European film. Not the extreme gore, but films like I Saw The Devil and Let The Right One In. Also Gaspar Noe and Irréversible. His one rape scene is the most horrifying but also one of the most accurate portrayals of a scene like that, because when rape happens it doesn’t just pan away to the windows or cut forward. It was a very realistic portrayal. That’s also why the dress that Mary wears during that scene is reminiscent of the dress that Monica Bellucci wears. Also Sylv and I are huge fans of our favourite directors at the moment – Sylv loves Lars Von Trier, and I love Joss Whedon. We always joke that we’re Joss and we’re Lars, two filmmakers that don’t really have any business working together, but strangely enough with us it really works, I put the heart in, and Sylvia takes it out and tears it into pieces. I think you can see that with the different tone changes in the film, where you have a character like Beatress Johnson [played by Tristan Risk] who’s very funny and very sweet and very counterpoint to a lot of the content happening in the film. Then you have some of the very difficult to watch scenes – and that’s all Lars.

Sylvia: I don’t think Jen and I would have been able to make American Mary had we not seen Hellraiser when we were 12, that definitely left a real mark on us. Clive Barker is such an influence. We met him before we went into production, and he was so sweet, so supportive and so intelligent about what he still knew about body modification. I don’t think he’s ever left the scene or stopped having an interest in it. Our second lead character, the male, is called Billy Barker [played by Antonio Cupo], which is a homage to him, and the detective actually speaks in the same regional English accent as Clive does – and Clive would say that he never gave Pinhead any single likeable quality. He made him horrible, he never made him do any good things, and yet people loved him and they’re drawn to him, men and women alike over the years, and I thought, isn’t that interesting, especially because in western cinema you always see these female characters that are so flawless and you just love ’em to pieces and you couldn’t possibly hold them accountable for anything, and that’s so boring. What if Mary is selfishly driven through the entire thing, and much to the merit of Katie [Isabelle]’s skill in playing that character, you still end up loving her, but if you look at her actions, why exactly are you loving her so much? I read a review the other day which said, “Who wants to watch a movie with a bunch of horrible people that are so flawed?” – but people are flawed, and so everybody is so damaged in this film, and it’s just such a treat for me to watch. I think I like people’s flaws better than good qualities, because anybody can like a good quality, but give me a good flaw any day, and that’s just fascinating.